Falling Off the Shelf

            One definite proof of the benevolence of the universe, my friend regularly insists, is that just when you need it most—especially if you haven’t even known that you needed it—the right book falls off the shelf into your hands.

            I was in the midst of an overdue dusting and tidying in my bedroom. The small bookcase at the head of the bed was, as usual, stacked precariously with too many books. There were books I wanted to read, books others had shoved into my hands with a well-meaning “you should read this,” and books I was actually reading, each with a bookmark holding my place. As I began sorting the last category, the heaviest volume (hardcover no less) slid to the floor, just missing my foot. Its bookmark fell out as I picked it up—In Search of Stones by M. Scott Peck.

            It had disappointed me months ago when I began reading, and I had almost decided to consign it to a give-away box. Since Peck’s earlier books had once taken their turn as helpful companions on my journey, I had expected too much from this one. Some hope apparently remained, hence its place on the shelf. Randomly leafing through to see where the bookmark should go, I began reading:

            But what I am most grateful to [our children] for is the learning they have wittingly or unwittingly provided me. And are still providing.

            The learning these days is all about separation.

            I was not prepared for it.     (152)

Not bothering to find a chair, I stood in the middle of the room, transfixed, absorbing Peck’s description of his struggle to let his children “individuate” – to separate. His rueful admission that the “professional literature doesn’t talk about how much it can hurt for all concerned” (152) was precisely what I needed to read – exactly then.

            That it had been a book by M. Scott Peck that had just fallen off the shelf into my hands seemed especially serendipitous. It was Peck who had defined grace as “a powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings” (The Road Less Travelled). Something there is in the universe that wishes us well, whether we name it grace or God or name it not at all. Something that drops the right book into our hands at the right time.

            Such grace-full falling off the shelf, I have discovered, can happen in two or three installments, even widely separated in time. I think now of the poem I “happened” to read in a journal I never subscribed to but had picked up one day because a colleague insisted that I should submit a paper to it. I decided against the submission, but did copy that one poem for my files, where it languished, forgotten after that first charmed reading. About 15 years later, while searching for poems to use in a discussion group on poetry and theology, this poem, “The Road to Emmaus” by Christopher Mann, “came to hand.” How else shall I describe its unlooked-for appearance? I had just read T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” and now heard, with astonishment, the similar cadences and knew at once that the poems wanted to be read and discussed together.   

            Now that I think about it, I’m convinced that it’s possible for the “right” book to fall off my shelf into someone else’s hands, even in some other province, if need be. 

            Recently, while seeking distraction from a letter that refused to be written, I let CBC’s website tempt me into watching an excellent interview with Brie Larson, who plays a central role in the acclaimed movie Room based on a book of the same title by Emma Donoghue. Larson’s articulateness and passion for her work had two consequences: one was that I sent the link for the interview to my sister, a retired child psychologist living in Edmonton; the other was that Room now fell off an obscure shelf where I’d shoved it over a year ago. I’d bought it because of a persuasive friend, but knowing something of its plot line, I had been too cowardly to read it. Now I did. So did my sister. She also read another novel by Emma Donoghue, and then two other non-fiction books on childhood trauma that were clearly necessary for her. In a grateful email, she blessed me for having begun the “whole sequence.” How could I possibly take credit for having participated, unwittingly, in that mysterious loving grace that topples books off shelves into our hands?

            The opening stanza of “The Road to Emmaus” begins, “It’s not the friendliest of villages, Emmaus,/ . . . hardly the place to expect revelation, / if revelation’s the word—I leave that to you.”

“Something there is in the universe that wishes us well,
whether we name it grace or God or name it not at all. Something that drops the right book into our hands at the right time. ”

(Originally published in Prairie Messenger April 20, 2016)

Remembering the Winter of the Heart

            On a recent trip to Calgary, we drove through a magnificent patterned world of blue-grey shadows amidst kaleidoscopic whites. Earlier in the morning, fog had filled the valleys. Now just enough sunlight filtered through clouds to clothe every twig and wire with diamonds. The very grasses along the edge of the highway stood taller in their ice-crystal sheaths. In the ditches, snow drifts swooped upwards into curled edges, sharply defined, austere. A sculptor could not have shaped cleaner lines or lovelier arcs.

Hoar frost on fences and shrubs.

            The sky presented itself in softer versions of blue and white with subtle mauve and coral shadings in wispy layers of cirrus clouds. It was not a dreary day, despite the absence of direct sunlight. For eyes that were willing to rest in the quality of distance, the wide-open landscape spoke a quiet welcome. The slight roll of the hills lifted gently into the horizon; on a winter morning, it’s hard to tell where land leaves off and sky begins.

evergreens and shrubs with hoar frost against skyline.

Unless there are fences to follow the curvature of the earth. Inside that all-surrounding dome of grey and white and blue, warmed here and there with tinctures of pale yellow and orange, each tree matters. So does the occasional raptor poised on the top of a telephone pole, or the single coyote, paused in his purposeful lope across the field.

            I have lived in the prairies for all of my three-score-and-ten years (and counting); the muted tones of this winter beauty are hardly new, though each day displays its own perfection. Once again, the silence of the scene quieted my soul. Reflection is of a different order in winter. Indoors we may indulge ourselves with tropical plants and flamboyant colors. Outdoors, the air widens our nostrils, dries our skin, and reminds us of our smallness, our dependencies. Poet William Stafford noted in “Sayings from the Northern Ice“: “It is people at the edge who say / things at the edge: winter is toward knowing.”

            Usually we sidestep such knowing through sheer activity. Hardened prairie denizens brag of skating parties, endless hockey games on the river ice, tobogganing parties, long afternoons of cross-country skiing—all of which are, I agree, entirely delightful. For children especially, snow is the ultimate construction material, just right for anything from forbidden snowballs to ubiquitous snow-people and including snow forts, tunnels in the snow, and quinzhees.

            But that’s not what comes to mind as I remember the drift lines in the ditches and the snow-laden evergreens casting long shadows across the land.

windbreak with trees and evergreens with hoarfrost and shadows in the snow

What remains always, as a backdrop to my at-home-ness in the bleakest winter scene, is the childhood memory of walking alone for hours through the woods around our farm home. Stick in hand with which to draw aimless figures in snow banks or just crunch through the crust of March snow, I wandered physically among trees and willows, and emotionally in a mess of sensations not understood, not expressed.

As long as I stayed in my hiding places, I could contemplate my real world if I dared or happily imagine fantastical other worlds. The contours of the woods, with their most secret paths, the ever-fascinating plot lines of animal and bird footprints, were as familiar to me as the coldness of our dog’s nose as she pressed up against me for an affectionate pat.

            I remember, in a dark time, when a wise friend loaned me his copy of Martin Marty’s A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. The opening line of Chapter One, “winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season in the weather,” startled me into attention. Yes, of course. But I had not thought of what that might mean in spiritual terms. Marty’s distinction between “summer spirituality,” which insists that the norm of faith is joyous, hopeful growth, and “winter spirituality,” which knows that not all stories have happy endings, that reality has always included loneliness and loss, was a reassuring revelation. I felt as if I’d been given permission to enter fully and without guilt into my experiences of absence. After all, without the dormancy of winter, spring does not come to usher in new growth.  

            This is not the place to provide a summary of Marty’s “modern spiritual classic,” but his use of “horizon” as a dominant metaphor is newly relevant as I remember my childhood wanderings among snow-laden trees, from whose shelter I stared out at the wider scene. “Horizon” is both the act of seeing and one’s personal world view.

There are those—the unbelievers, the atheists, and the modern secularists—who “have perhaps excluded God from their horizon.” And there are believers whose suffering and losses have led them also to know profound Absence, but without excluding God. To move through a wintry season toward a horizon that refuses to block out faith requires a stubborn courage to say Yes to possibilities, without denying that barrenness must be lived through, not papered over with sunny posters of optimistic catch-phrases.

My journey has led, more often than not, toward wintery horizons, although I have known sunny seasons as well. The two kinds of spirituality are not mutually exclusive; each has its season and they may overlap. What I know is that there is beauty in the shadows of winter–if once recognized and accepted as a necessary gift, that beauty becomes restful in its own way. To say Yes to the presence of God whether I feel it or not, is to feel at home in winter. It is a white and crystal temple filled with equal parts memory and awe.  

“Winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season in the weather.” Martin Marty

(Originally published in Prairie Messenger, March 18, 2018)